There is a small city in east Texas nestled within rolling pastures and boasting a population of just over 600 people.  Seriously, as you drive into town the sign says “Population 612.”  And I thought I grew up in a small town.  John Cougar Mellencamp has nothing on this place!

I’ve been to Cushing twice now.  First, in 2008 to see my dad’s new hometown and meet his wife whom he had recently married, and then three weeks ago (July 2014) to see my dad for the last time.  His cancer had returned and his health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse earlier this year.  He had been telling us not to worry because he would be out to NC for my niece’s wedding in September.  They had bought his airline ticket and a dandy new suit complete with Texas cuff links and tie.  Meanwhile he told one of his close friends that he didn’t think he would live through the following week.  He was correct.  He died in the early hours of July 15th.

My siblings and I all spoke with him on the phone the night of the 13th, and we left town on the 14th to go and see him as we knew his time was short.  The 16 hour drive proved too long and just before we crossed the Mississippi, he crossed the Jordan.  My sister Laura and her family were a few hours ahead of the rest of us and arrived at his house approximately 40 minutes after he passed away.  Dad never did like to wait on us.  As we’ve reflected on it we all seem to agree that he really didn’t want us to see him in such a state.

When we received the news of his passing, my brother, two of my three sisters, one of my two nieces and my two oldest boys (9 & 10) stopped along the highway just inside the Louisiana State line.  We wept together, hugged, and then caught our collective breath and traveled on to Texas to say goodbye in whole different way.  The whole drive out there was an incredibly rich time with my family; we laughed, we wept, we prayed, we talked and we sat in silence…together.  Later my wife and my sister-in-law would fly in to join us.  

We pulled into Nacogdoches around 5:00 A.M. on Tuesday the 15th and slept in our hotel for a few short hours.  Around 8 or 9 I took my sons to the lobby for their not-so-nutritious-but-free breakfast.  The boys ate their waffles that had come out of a waffle maker in the shape of Texas and I drank my coffee while checking my Facebook news feed.  Then the tears started to come.  It seems odd thing to me that of all things Facebook would be the cathartic straw on the camels back, but when you come from a line of emotionally constipated males you take whatever works.  As I read through the comments and posts about dad, the prayers of loved ones and the condolences of friends it hit me… he’s gone.  No amount of mental preparation can stand in the wake of tears born from the depths of this kind of grief.

As the tears rolled my phone rang.  Technology and grief – there is a fascinating relationship worthy of exploration.  My dad’s wife Vicki was calling me from their home phone which, thanks to my Samsung, had a picture of my dad’s Facebook profile pic.  When I saw it… whatever early-morning peace was being had by the other travelers in the hotel lobby was evaporated by my now uncontrollable lament.  It wasn’t just crying.  It physically hurt.  This grief was more visceral and intense than any I’d ever experienced in my life, and my boys were watching.

Then came the 30 minute drive out to Cushing along TX route 21.  Mark, my brother, was driving as we winded through the lush and hilly countryside  towards Cushing to help make arrangements for the funeral.  My brother has always been the biggest fan of U2 I’ve ever known, and as he played their song “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” the grief hit me again.  This time with more force than before.  Something about the scenery, the music, and the thought of my dad driving his Harley through the countryside was simultaneously beautiful and desperate.  There seemed to be a deeper level of sadness that resulted from being with my family.   A kind of reciprocal  grief that, on the one hand was excruciating as I watched the sorrow of my loved ones (especially my boys), but somehow comforting and altogether good on the other.  I really don’t know what to call this odd mixture of shared grief and gratitude… perhaps this is “love bearing all things.”

Cushing was my dad’s home.  It is a small town filled with people who genuinely loved my dad in the last years of his life.  During the viewing and the funeral there were stories upon stories of people who knew my dad and had become close friends with him during his 7 years there.  Towards the end of the funeral service people walked through to pay their last respects.  I was struck by the teenage boys, the elderly couples, the middle-aged moms… all of them in tears.  Tears for their friend who had lost her husband, and tears for their own loss of a friend.  Part of the story here that I won’t go into full detail on is that before my dad moved to Texas he had all but totally isolated himself from friends and even some of his own family.  That he was able to find friendship, love and embrace in a small but hospitable place like Cushing is a strangely remarkable picture of redemption.  

There is so much more to tell.  To say it has been difficult to finally sit and write this post would be a gross understatement.  While I’ve written and spoke on the themes of hope and fear, or death and loss, nothing has brought me to the crucible of grief like the death of my dad.  Paradoxically, nothing has given more depth to the hope of the resurrection.  Death is not “natural” nor is it final.  Does the idea of hope even make any sense apart from grief?  That will have to be another post, but in the meantime  my family and I “do not grieve without hope.”

One of the messages I received the day after dad passed was from a good friend who had suffered the loss of her dad at a young age.   One of the things she said was “No two ways about it. No matter how much you tell yourself that  ‘he’s not in pain anymore’ or that ‘he’s in a better place,’ it hurts like hell.”  I could not have said it better myself.  And that is the point… I didn’t have to.  My friends and especially my family have grieved this loss together, and we’ll continue together.  Thank you to all of my friends for your text messages, phone calls, Facebook posts etc.  Your reaching out has helped and your invitation to be present to our pain is very much appreciated.    May my heart become a more generous place for going through these valleys of grief… and may God bless the generous people in the small town of Cushing.  Thank you for loving my dad so well.  10553634_10153051259956632_2717171370709773303_n

Just a few days left in 2011.  It’s been quite an insane year for the Horn tribe… just see my previous post for a brief update.  I never seem to be able to get to all the books I hope to but the ones I was able to digest have not disappointed.  The top two are bookends of 2011 for me.  One I just finished and the other I read in the first week of January.  Without giving full reviews of their content I offer you a few thoughts:

Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places by Chuck DeGroat

I just finished this book about a week ago and it is the catalyst for this post because it forced me to re-evaluate my own personal journey in general and specifically this past year.  I can’t overstate how much I love this book!  Like all the other books I would make such a statement about (and they are few), the author touches a nerve that is both refreshing and at times  painful.  I honestly told my wife that this is the book I should have written… that is if I was a Ph.D., a therapist and a pastor.  DeGroat does a masterful job weaving his own personal experiences, as well as his interactions as a therapist, with a reformed theological foundation and uses the story of the Exodus to parallel our personal transformations.  One of my many favorite passages:

“So used to self-reliance, we may balk at the notion that we cannot rescue ourselves.  Relinquishing control, opening our hearts to a liberator outside ourselves, can fill us with fear.  If we’ve been hurt or wounded in a relationship, it is particularly difficult, perhaps, to imagine a God who will actually show up when we are at the end of our resources.  What’s more, this God does not invite us into a painless future, a quick fix.  The sea crossing leads into desert territory, which, as we will see, holds dangers that require us to remember the Passover again and again.  What will we hold on to in these times of trial?”

This will be one of the few books I continue to wrestle with and use as a resource when I need to be reminded of the freedom from “Egypt” that is mine.

Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions:  Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women by Dan Brennan

This was the first book I read in 2011 and there simply isn’t enough room here to fully nuance out the particulars.  Pitty it has taken me this long to write on the subject.  It was also the first book, other than the Bible, that my wife and I have read together.  One of the endorsements of this book reads, “A must read for people seeking to build authentic Christian community.”  I fully concur.  This book holds significant sentimental value for my wife and I as it has opened the door for us to have better communication as we’ve experienced the influence of friendships on our own marriage.  Side note:  sorry Dan, but I’m no fan of  the term “cross-gender” or any other adjective attached to the word friend.  I much prefer the simple beauty and natural neutrality of the word “friend.”  But I digress.  Here is what I love about Dan’s book… he attempts (and succeeds I think) at rescuing the idea of friendship from the vice grips of a over-sexualized worldview (what he calls “romantic myth”) and grounds it fully in a robust theological understanding of the Church and a hope-filled eschatology.  Validating my own experience Dan writes, “The sexual theology of our evangelical churches has been too small and defensive.”  Word.  He continues, “From a Christian perspective, the complex brother-sister bond as a nonromantic model for male-female friendships holds great power and promise.”

The power and the promise of this book is that it will disrupt your thinking and at times have you nodding your head as if “DUH!”  Then you realize the waters that you swim in are the very waters he’s trying to help you move through into a place of greater freedom to love and be loved.  Not everyone is going to agree with all of Dan’s conclusions or assumptions but navigating any friendship can be complicated and Dan is a great guide as this book reveals.

I’m way over my self-imposed word limit for blogging so I’ll simply mention two other books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year:

Notes from a the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World by N.D. Wilson – This is a one-of-kind book!  Great read!

Free of Charge:  Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf – Anything by Volf is worth digesting slowly and often.

What have been your favorite books this year?

Bring on 2012!